Big Bend Real Estate Guide November 2021 - Page 6

Pouring their way into the

When Thomas Lancaster poured the concrete countertop in his home 10 years ago , he didn ’ t really know what he was doing . In the course of building a home for history by Danielle Gallo himself and wife Belle Pena , he decided to learn something new .

He bought a book , looked up DIY tips online and set to work . Though the end result is a daily reminder of how little he understood about the complexities of concrete , the process set in motion a winding journey that ’ s taken the couple all the way to Blue Origin , Jeff Bezos ’ s West Texas space venture .
A Fort Worth native , Thomas first came to West Texas 20 years ago , when he and Belle were dating . She grew up in El Paso , Pecos and Fort Stockton . Her mother hails from Boquillas del Carmen and her grandmother from Copper Canyon , a member of the Tarahumara tribe . The couple moved to Alpine full-time about 12 years ago , leaving behind various careers in the oil business , graphic design and education , including teaching in Korea .
Thomas set about building their home , a process that took three years . After pouring the countertop , he realized he wanted to explore a career in concrete fabrication . He attended the Concrete Countertop Institute in Raleigh , North Carolina , and began Lancaster Designs in Alpine , a name he recently changed to Marfa Cement Works .
The Big Bend ’ s small population makes any business a challenge . There is limited demand in the region for functional concrete art , so Thomas reached out to designers in Santa Fe to broaden his market . As his style and skillset evolved over the past decade , the demand for his work grew , until Covid-19 closed New Mexico ’ s economy like a tight fist .
Belle , meanwhile , often helped Thomas in his shop when he needed a hand . Initially he built a large garage workshop at their home but later expanded to a more functional workspace on their property at the south edge of town . Though Belle has been familiar with the complex requirements of forming and casting concrete , she hasn ’ t been deeply involved in Tom ’ s business until last year , when Covid forced a change in her career path as well . She left her job during the pandemic to focus on their son , Ellis , and found herself at loose ends . Having earned her undergraduate in marketing and an MBA before achieving her teaching certificate at Cambridge University in England , she decided to take her career in an entirely new direction .
It took the crew more than 40 hours over three
“ Thomas jokingly asked if I wanted to become the family welder ,” she said . “ He was tired of paying the high cost for the quality of welding his work requires . I thought about it and decided to give it a try .” Belle contacted Frank Lopez , a local Alpine welder , and asked to apprentice in his shop . “ I went every day , and I think Frank was surprised . I just kept showing up .” After a week , she told Thomas that she wanted to pursue welding . “ I realized how much I loved it ,” she said . “ I bought a little Hobart welder and just kept at it . I knew absolutely nothing about even the basics — cutting , measuring . It was intimidating to try to learn so much , but I also think it was best to start from scratch .”
As she progressed in her welding skills , Belle was able to start fabricating bases for Thomas ’ s work . “ It ’ s the first time in 23 years I ’ ve really seen her be passionate about her work ,” Thomas said .
Earlier this year , Thomas received an email from Blue Origin , Jeff Bezos ’ s space exploration company . They were inviting him to bid on the large entrance sign they were planning for their facility on Highway 54 outside Van Horn . “ There were a number of locals bidding on it ,” Thomas remembered . “ They already had a bid they found acceptable , but we wanted to give it a try .”
“ I got ambitious ,” said Belle . “ Their
Thomas Lancaster and Belle Pena
original idea was to have the whole thing made out of concrete , but the time frame was very short . It would have been almost impossible to execute . So I suggested welding the feather out of stainless steel .”
6 Big Bend Real Estate Guide • November 2021